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Defending the FaithGlobal Histories of Apologetics and Politics in the Twentieth Century$

Todd Weir and Hugh McLeod

Print publication date: 2021

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266915

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: May 2021

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266915.001.0001

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Introduction: ‘Defending the Faith: Global Histories of Apologetics and Politics in the 20th Century’

Introduction: ‘Defending the Faith: Global Histories of Apologetics and Politics in the 20th Century’

(p.1) Introduction: ‘Defending the Faith: Global Histories of Apologetics and Politics in the 20th Century’
Defending the Faith

Hugh McLeod

Todd H. Weir

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter gives an overview of the history of religious competition and secular-religious politics in the twentieth century. It introduces two key terms of this volume, secularism and apologetics. It proposes apologetics as a novel way to understand not only how religious but also secular actors defend their ideological positions. Following a history of the term apologetics in church use, this chapter proposes a model of apologetics neutralized of its narrowly Christian context that can be used for comparison across time and space. This introductory chapter then offers some general findings about the nature of religious competition in the twentieth century, before discussing in a comparative fashion the contributions to this volume.

Keywords:   apologetics, religious competition, Culture Wars, Secularism, Twentieth century history

The 20th century was a time of intense religious competition in most parts of the world. Religions vied with one another for popular support and political power, while rifts between rival branches of the same religion sometimes escalated into open hostilities. Religions also competed, as never before, with cultural forces and political movements that were pointedly secular and often overtly hostile to traditional faiths.

The ground was already being prepared from about 1800. The great expansion of Christian missionary activity from that time, often supported by the increasing military and economic power of Europe and the United States, provoked the resistance of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus. Protestant missions also sought to penetrate areas previously dominated by Catholic or Orthodox Christianity. Within the historic Christendoms of Europe and the Americas, increasing religious toleration from the later 18th century allowed Christian and eventually Jewish minorities to challenge the exclusive privileges previously enjoyed by the dominant churches. Religious toleration also allowed increasing space for spiritualists, atheists, and advocates of new worldviews. With the rise of liberalism from the early 19th century, questions of the power of the Church and of religious freedom moved to the centre of political debate, both in Europe and in Latin America. While moderate liberals were primarily concerned with religious freedom and with limiting the powers of established churches, more radical, freethinking secularists were not only militantly anticlerical but also proposed a wide-ranging secularisation of society. The socialism which grew out of liberalism in the later 19th century frequently inherited this radical agenda regarding religious matters.

This divergence between moderate liberals and more radical freethinkers played into the definitional struggles over the terms ‘secular’ and ‘secularism’. In the 1840s, British liberals had begun to campaign for ‘secular’ national schooling, which would remove primary schools from the hands of the churches. Yet, freethinkers were also attracted to this term. When a congress was convened in 1850 to found a National Secular School Association, the prominent liberal Richard Cobden rejected the proposed name because he found that ‘secular’ was being (p.2) co-opted by those who were anti-religious rather than non-sectarian. To avoid association with such aims, the name National Public School Association was chosen instead. A year later, Britain’s leading freethinker, the National Chartist and pioneer of Co-operation George Jacob Holyoake, staked his own claim on the term, when he founded the London Secular Society. He coined ‘secularism’ to signify a cultural movement of scientific worldview and religious scepticism.1 Out of these diverging positions emerged the two most common definitions of ‘secularism’ today. Most recent scholars follow the liberal trajectory and understand under the term a political secularism, which demands a religiously neutral state, or even a state which is favourable to religion in general but refuses to privilege a specific religious denomination. On the other hand, there is the more radical secularism of the freethinkers, which extends from support of the scientific worldview and anticlericalism to outright hostility to organised religion. In this book we are using the term in the latter more extended sense, to include freethinkers and their organisations as well as those political movements whose programmes include attacks on religion and measures designed to restrict or even eradicate its influence.

The contributions to this volume are focused on what has been called ‘the short 20th century’, the limits of which are defined by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Given these bookends, studies using the conception of the ‘short’ century have often focused on the political and ideological ramifications of the rise and fall of communism. However, it can also be usefully applied to the history of religious competition. The October Revolution marked the beginning of a new era in the history of religion, as it led to the establishment of the world’s first atheist state. Although the details of anti-religious policy and the intensity of the attack varied considerably over the following seven decades, the long-term objective of eliminating religion continued until the last years of the Soviet Union, when under Mikhail Gorbachev a new relationship began to take shape between the communist state and religion in general and the Orthodox Church in particular.

Soviet policies also informed the global history of religion, first through the expansion of communist rule. After 1945, with the establishment of ‘the Soviet bloc’ of communist-ruled states in eastern and central Europe, and later with the revolutions in China, Cuba, Vietnam and elsewhere, anti-religious policies of varying degrees of severity and adapted to local circumstances were instituted across large parts of the world. Second, the presence of communist parties or the spectre of their appearance brought the menace of godlessness into the religious politics of many countries.

(p.3) Communist atheism was an inspiration to many in the non-communist world, especially where the dominant religion was allied with political conservatism. But inevitably it also provoked revulsion and fear on the part not only of religious believers but also of many liberals who believed that religious freedom was a human right. Already in the 1920s conservative political parties very effectively used anti-communism and anti-Marxism as part of their attempts to win the votes of church-goers, and anti-communism had an increasingly important role in papal teaching in the 1920s and ’30s. After 1945, religion was an essential dimension of the Cold War between the ‘Christian’ or ‘Judeo-Christian’ United States and the ‘atheist’ Soviet Union.

The competition between religions or between religions and secularism tended to take rather different forms in those countries which had been part of the European empires and where nationalist movements were coming to power as the colonial rulers were pushed out during the period from the 1940s to the 1970s. Independence movements usually required an alliance of religious and secular nationalists, together with pragmatists for whom religious issues were of secondary importance. While many post-colonial states were keen to gain support from the Soviet Union, this seldom led to the adoption of Soviet anti-religious policies. Religious competition was shaped by differing governing frameworks. Sometimes, as in India, a ‘secular’ but not anti-religious state aimed to protect the rights both of religious minorities and of the non-religious, while many of the Hindu majority aspired to a more overtly confessional state. In many parts of the Arab world, in spite of significant Christian minorities, the principal competition at the end of the 20th century was between neo-fundamentalist Muslims and secularising nationalists.

Thus, while the presence of radical secularism, as embodied in the Soviet Union, was a strong one in the history of 20th-century religion, it was not determinative. Religious competition took a more multipolar form than the binary framework of the Cold War might suggest. This is particularly true of the ‘long’ 1960s, which, especially in the Western world, marked a turning point in several respects. In the first place, although the Cold War continued into the 1980s, fewer people were now willing to see it straightforwardly as a struggle between good and evil. The Vatican under Popes John XXIII and Paul VI modified the anti-communism of their predecessors, emphasising the duty of Catholics to work even with communists for the common objectives of peace and social justice. In the Protestant churches a divide was opening up by the later 1960s between liberals and moderates, dominant in the World Council of Churches, who prioritised ‘Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation’, and theological conservatives, most of whom continued to be staunch Cold Warriors. Second, this was a time of cultural revolution, which included, as well as many other things, increasing religious pluralism and secularisation. Growing affluence, together with a reaction against the austerity and the moral constraints of the wartime and post-war years, permitted a drive for greater individual freedom in areas ranging from sexual morality and the use of drugs to the choice of a religion or ‘path’. This altered the nature of religious competition in the Western world on several different fronts: as well as the intensified competition (p.4) between the religious and the non-religious and between liberal and conservative believers, there was also increasing competition between the well-established religions of Christianity and Judaism and a wide range of ‘alternative’ beliefs.

This brief historical survey of religious competition in the 20th century reveals a complex picture that defies simple characterisation. Yet it makes clear that the efforts and strategies undertaken to defend religious faiths—as well as to defend secular faiths against religious opponents—produced significant effects in the realms of politics and religion. To explore the strategies, clashes, and effects of religious competition on a global scale, Todd Weir and Benjamin Ziemann, later joined by Hugh McLeod, approached the British Academy to convene a conference on the subject. Over the course of two days in London in September 2017, contributors brought different disciplinary approaches drawn from theology, political science, anthropology, and intellectual history to bear on their analyses of apologetic confrontations in a diverse range of local, national, and transnational theatres. Some of the papers of this conference were chosen for the present volume and some additional contributions have been solicited to provide the reader with a balanced offering that allows comparisons across the globe and across time. Our book includes chapters focusing on South and South-East Asia, on North Africa, on the United States, on the Soviet Union, on various parts of Europe and on the papacy. The protagonists include Christians of various denominations, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and secularists.

The volume is in three parts. The first focuses on the 1920s and ’30s, the second on the years after the Second World War, and the third on the later 20th century. This arrangement reflects in particular the changing relationships between religion and secularism during the century. In the first period, the relationship was mainly one of uncompromising opposition, though modified by specific situations in each country. In the second, the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union led to a continuation of this stark opposition, but the beginnings of decolonisation brought new dimensions, especially in the light of the attempts by many of the newly independent states to remain independent of the two great blocs. In the third, the division between a ‘religious’ West and an ‘irreligious’ East was blurred not only by secularisation in the West and religious revival in some of the communist-ruled states, but also by the enthusiasm for ‘dialogue’ which was at a peak in the 1960s and ’70s.

Five Contentions

We have chosen to call our volume ‘Defending the Faith’, in order to draw attention to the central role that competition played in the history of 20th-century religion and politics. How did this defence take shape? Summarising the findings of the volume, we put forward five main contentions.

First, defending the faith meant not merely defending a particular faith, but often defending religious faith as a whole. As we have outlined in the preceding (p.5) section, even though secularism was present in the religious landscape of the 19th century, there was a marked contrast to the 20th, when, really for the first time in history, the very existence of major religions was placed in question. This took place through revolutionary regimes, not only in communist Russia and China, but in republican Spain and Mexico. Not merely anticlerical, but pointedly anti-religious invective made its appearance via cultural and intellectual movements. As the century wore on, thoroughgoing secularisation appeared as an increasing threat to hitherto Christian societies in Europe and North America. No longer limited to certain segments of society, such as the socialist, working-class milieus that had caused church leaders great anxieties in the 1930s, during the 1960s secularisation was perceived as general problem. Many theologians wrestled with the possibility that the near future would bring a society in which believers in God formed a minority.

Second, the presence of secularism also made itself felt in the competition between religions and between religious denominations. This continued the pattern, established already in the 19th century, whereby ‘culture wars’ were characterised by multipolar conflicts. The ‘culture wars’ of the 19th century in Latin America and many parts of Europe had pitted the Roman Catholic Church (or more specifically its predominantly ultramontane leadership) against an array of enemies from old confessional foes, to liberal theological forces that combined Protestantism, Judaism, and sometimes Catholicism with modern philosophy and science, to outright radical anti-clericals.2 Whereas conservative Protestants had often remained on the side-lines in the 19th century, they were among the most zealous in the 20th century. By the end of the century, conservative evangelicals allied themselves politically with conservative Catholics, to become the leading protagonists in the US culture wars.

Third, the course of 20th-century religious competition was sufficiently discontinuous as to call into question the many accounts that have pinned modern religious history to one or several underlying processes. One such process is provided by the secularisation thesis, which has been widely debated. Although historians and sociologists continue to recognise the relevance of secularisation to explaining developments in many parts of the world, this focus has diverted attention from the interactions between religion and secularism which have been central to the political and religious history of the century. By contrast, recent influential global histories of the 19th century have rejected the assumption of secularisation and trumpeted instead the revival and spread of world religions in the context of imperial competition and mission. They have introduced other processual categories to tell the story of the ‘modernisation’, ‘globalisation’, ‘bureaucratisation’, and even ‘Protestantisation’ of global religions.3 Another strand of (p.6) recent historiography has emerged out of the concept of secularism as developed in post-colonial studies. It too embeds religious history in an assumed underlying process. Following Talal Asad’s seminal work of 2003 Formations of the Secular, an avalanche of investigations have described secularism as a mode of state management of religion, which produced ‘multiple secularities’ across the globe in the wake of the encounter of the colonial state with local religious contexts.4 All of these ways of accounting for modern religious–political history assume an underlying processual development driven by a hegemonic force, whether modernisation or, as in the case of secularism studies, the imperial European state and its post-colonial successors. This volume casts quite a different light on modern history. Particularly in the first half of the 20th century, competition appears premised on the absence or at least weakness of such hegemonic forces. In short, culture wars were experienced as open-ended contests.

Fourth, states and political parties were crucial actors in defending the faith. Religion featured as a key aspect in the competition between states, which contributed to the interpenetration of religion and politics. This interpenetration also appeared in new political movements, such as National Socialism, which referred to their belief as a Weltanschauung, a term derived from the 19th-century competition between secular and religious actors in Germany.

Fifth, and finally, we argue that the concrete actions undertaken to defend the faith themselves generated numerous effects that require special study in their own right. These effects were felt, to borrow a military analogy, at the front, in the hinterland, as well as in the enemy camp. To uncover them, local histories are required that can chase down the interactions between antagonists operating in the zone of conflict.

To sum up, this volume sets out to explore religious competition in which secularism appeared either as an active participant, for example in the form of a communist party or a group of popular science authors, or as a frame of reference, such as occurred when religious writers cast secularism as a historical force underpinning the erosion of Christian culture. This task requires some methodological innovation, for, if we are to study secularism and secularist political parties as actors inside the field of religious competition, it will be necessary to integrate the fields of religion and politics, in a way that treats religion and secularism equally. The challenge, in other words, is not to simply write religion into the ‘age of ideologies’ or to write secularist politics into the history of religion, rather, it is to bridge the two fields. This requires some common concepts that can be used for the analysis of all actors in religious competition. In this volume we propose ‘apologetics’, originally a Christian and Jewish term to signify defence of the faith, as a central concept that can be applied both to other religions and to secularism. The benefit of this term is that it grants access to centuries of ecclesiastical reflection and institution-building (p.7) that have taken place through the name of apologetics. However, to make of it a general term, applicable to other religions, times, and places, apologetics must first be neutralised through critical conceptual historical analysis.

A Short Conceptual History of Apologetics

It will be useful to briefly consider here the conceptual history of apologetics, in order to provide an object lesson in the way secularism entered into religious competition in the modern era. Apologetics was an ecclesiastical term used for activities and associations dedicated to waging modern European culture wars on behalf of the Christian churches and, to a lesser extent, on behalf of the Jewish community. It also named chairs at universities, where professors of theology reflected upon the significance of apologetics to the development of the Church and utilised these reflections to develop defensive and offensive strategies that encompassed also political action.

The way in which apologetics was intimately tied to Christian responses to secularism can best be shown for the case of Germany, where secularist critiques of religion developed most fully in the 19th century. An important early effort to theorise apologetics came from the Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, who began his influential textbook for theology students (first published in 1811) with apologetics, because he saw as fundamental the labour of the early church apologists who gave a philosophical articulation of the Christian idea in dialogue and conflict with the historic environment in which it emerged. This description of ancient apology corresponded to his effort to forge theology as an academic subject borne of the mediation of church teaching and modern science. He contrasted apologetics to the lower order articulation of doctrine in ‘polemics’, or ‘the clerical practice which aims at eliminating conditions of sickness’, i.e., combatting heresies within the church communities.5

By the early 1830s, Schleiermacher recognised that his mediation theology was being threatened by a growing rift between scientific naturalism and Christian orthodoxy. One of his students was David Friedrich Strauss, who became the enfant terrible of Protestant theology when his Life of Jesus (1835) sent shockwaves around the world for its reading of the gospels as myth. In his notes on Schleiermacher’s lectures, Strauss stated that the distinction between apologetics and polemics was hard to maintain, because apologetic texts directed at outward threats were often, in fact, aimed at internal theological opponents.6 In the preface to his magnum opus of 1840 The Christian Doctrine of Faith: Its Doctrinal Development and Conflict with Modern Science, Strauss went further and stated that the pre-eminent (p.8) front in religious struggle had shifted away from the paradigm established by the Reformation. Instead of the conflict between the Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed confessions, the defining conflicts of his day were within the confessions. The most pressing theological divide was between the religious rationalists, who embraced modern science, and the orthodox, who, in Strauss’s view, clung to blind dogmatism and arbitrary authority. Internal polemics, in other words, had superseded and replaced external apologetics.7

Thus, already prior to the Revolution of 1848, a key aspect of apologetics had become clear: the battle against secularism was intimately connected to the inner-church polemics splitting theological liberals and conservatives and vice versa. A similar triangulation of apologetics took place during and after the German Kulturkampf of the late 1870s, during which Chancellor Otto von Bismarck sought to marginalise the Catholic Church and its political allies. Catholic leaders pursued an apologetic strategy to fortify Catholic culture in a hostile environment. Whereas Protestant conservatives often blamed Protestant liberals for letting the fox in amongst the hens, Catholic apologists generally blamed Protestantism as a whole for the vulnerability of the new German nation to secularism.8

As Protestant and Catholic conservatives pushed apologetics as a strategy to re-Christianise Germany and protect it from the evils of ‘modernism’, many liberals backed away from the term Apologetik. In 1907, Martin Rade, the most prominent left-liberal Protestant theologian in pre-war Germany, defended Schleiermacher’s project of apologetics as ‘religious philosophy’, but found that the term had since developed a bad name and had better be abandoned. He saw Protestant theology as a modern ‘cultural factor’ that could happily compete with other branches of science in the university. To argue as conservatives did, that apologists should focus on weak spots in the natural sciences, or to attempt to forge a rigid ‘Christian worldview’ was, in his eyes, contrary to the spirit of free scientific inquiry. It was a pre-emptive admission of defeat.9

Rade’s essay reveals a contest between two versions of Christian apologetics at the beginning of the 20th century. Whereas conservatives saw the encounter of ‘Christian’ and ‘modern’ worldviews as a life-or-death struggle, many liberals embraced this encounter, thereby laying the groundwork for the idea of ‘dialogue’, which blossomed in the latter half of the 20th century. Yet, by the First World War, the conservative view had become dominant: secularism was deemed an existential threat to Western Christianity and churches continued to invest in combative forms of defence. By the 1950s, the tide had turned against the conservative mode of apologetics and the term fell from favour. It was retained among evangelical (p.9) and fundamentalist Protestants who continued to see secularism as the ultimate enemy of Christianity and fought against it as a strategy of mission and ‘Christian worldview’.

This brief conceptual history of apologetics illustrates how modern religious competition shaped European and North American ecclesiastical history; it shows the longevity of structures of defence and their embeddedness in the key fissures between liberal and conservative wings of the Church. Apologetics was a key location from which the churches made sense of ‘secular’ developments, whether in the form of natural science, partisan politics, or international diplomacy.

We propose to employ apologetics as a heuristic that, once shorn of its specifically Christian connotations, may be applied to other participants, also in other regions of the world. There is some historical precedent for this. Assimilated Jews seeking confessional equality in Europe utilised the term apologetics in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and, as Clemens Six and Umar Ryad note in their contributions to this volume, Muslim activists and scholars of Islam began to use the term to describe Muslim responses to Christian or secularist detractors. One even finds the term being applied to non-religious actors in the context of the Cold War. Secular anti-communists in the United States, such as Sidney Hook and James Rorty, spoke of the ‘apologists’ working on behalf of the Soviet Union. This was an apt, but ironic ascription, meant to tar totalitarian ideologies with the brush of religious dogmatism, thereby also dealing Christian conservatives an indirect blow.10 In this way, an older trope developed by Protestant liberals against ultramontane Catholics in the 19th century reappeared in the guise of American liberal anti-communism, as Udi Greenberg and Jennifer Miller argue in their contribution to this volume. Apologetics was also claimed in a positive fashion by some secular actors. In 1952, the American philosopher T. V. Smith penned an article entitled ‘Democratic Apologetics’, in which he rejected the notion that only Christians could carry forward an apologetic campaign against communism. Instead, he argued that seculars and Christians could unite behind the defence of US democracy, which he described as a spiritual enterprise.11

This ironic twist in the term’s history has paved the way for our proposed application of apologetics as an abstract model for the analysis of secular and religious actors alike. Just like their rivals in religious institutions, secularist organisations and socialist states developed specialist cadres tasked with ‘defending the faith’. They faced the same need to refute the criticisms of those outside the camp, to strengthen the convictions of those within, and to win new converts. If one accepts that religious competition produced apologists and apologetic responses on multiple (p.10) sides, it becomes possible to use apologetics as the basis to undertake comparisons of religious and secular actors, across geographic space and time.

In addition to enabling comparison, apologetics also provides a means of highlighting interactions between competitors. In this sense, apologetics delineates a zone of conflict. In a chapter aimed at fleshing out the analytical promise of the term apologetics, Todd Weir argues that amidst the intense culture war of Weimar Germany, the campaigns and press publications of the Christian and secularist organisations demarcated an ‘apologetic theatre’, in which philosophical, political, and religious concepts were forged. In his analysis of one such concept, ‘Christian worldview’, Weir finds evidence that Protestant theologians were learning from Marxist materialists and völkisch nationalists even as they sought to counter them.

Because apologetics connects religious competition to the development of new theological and political concepts, it can provide an important tool for intellectual history, as the contributions to this volume amply demonstrate. Apologists self-consciously sought to develop missionary strategies in the context of defence. They took information gleaned from enemy observation, translated it, and folded it into new understandings of both their opponents and themselves. This was an interactive process, in which apologists borrowed not only techniques from one another, but also ideas.

While the contributors have often been able to build on the work of other scholars, we believe that the originality of the volume lies not only in their arguments and in the approach which they have used, but also in the possibility for comparison which the volume offers. In the following, we undertake some initial comparisons and identify some common patterns that the chapters bring into view.

The Scale of Apologetic Struggle

Contributors to this volume have shown how varied the forms were in which apologists defended their faiths in the 20th century. At one extreme, we see that there were sweeping, coordinated programmes meant to transform entire societies, undertaken by powerful churches, political parties, and states. At the other extreme were lone individuals acting without institutional support. The most grandiose project for defending the faith in the face of numerous contemporary threats and attacks was Pope Pius XI’s establishment of Catholic Action, operating across wide areas of the globe. This campaign was guided by the ideal of the rule of Christ the King, claiming sovereignty over all areas of politics and society, as well as the life of the individual. As John Pollard shows, the Catholic hierarchy in each part of the world was directed to mobilise the laity for a war on many fronts against secularism and anticlericalism. In particular, lay Catholics were encouraged to act as self-conscious representatives of the Catholic faith in politics and in their professions. Almost equally grandiose, though necessarily limited to the Soviet Union and its satellites, was Khrushchev’s campaign against religion which aimed to establish a completely atheist society. Under the banner of ‘scientific atheism’ the (p.11) state recruited and trained professional apologists, as described in detail by Victoria Smolkin. They needed to fear little direct challenge from religious apologists (though religion would be an important aspect of the emerging samizdat literature). At times well-organised campaigns on both sides met in combat. In Weimar Germany, as Todd Weir and Benjamin Ziemann illustrate, competitive apologetics reached a probably unparalleled extreme, as the Catholic and Protestant churches and various socialist and communist freethinking organisations all invested heavily in publications and employed specialists.

Two chapters on the UK in the interwar period offer a strong contrast to contemporaneous events in Germany. As in Germany, some church conservatives, including some Protestants, were attracted to Pius XI’s declaration of war on godless communism, and some on the left may have been sympathetic to Soviet anti-religious actions. However, historians Umar Ryad and Peter Bowler reveal how apologetics could function in a more variegated and less polarised society. They also reveal the individual side of apologetics. Ryad analyses the writings of a group of prominent British converts to Islam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of them from an aristocratic or military background. In describing their own conversion they recalled their dissatisfaction with Christianity and with British Christian rule in the Empire, sometimes also admiration for the Ottoman Empire, and their discovery in Islam of a faith both more tolerant and more compatible with modern science. These British converts could, and sometimes did, face suspicion and even ridicule. Yet there are interesting parallels in the ways that both converts to Islam in Britain and converts to atheism in the Soviet Union drew on their own life stories and the narrative of their own conversion in order to persuade others of the truth of their new faith. Peter Bowler describes a group of British Rationalist writers of the early 20th century, who also operated on their own, but some of whom were already very well known. They included the novelist and prophet H. G. Wells and the scientists J. B. S. Haldane and J. D. Bernal. They replied to the claim that rationalism offered nothing more inspiring than the quest for individual happiness by imagining a future in which a transformed humanity would move out to occupy the whole universe.

Continuities and Breaks

The chapters of this volume provide new insights into the interplay of continuities and major breaks that marked religious–political contests in the ‘short 20th century’. As new political–religious constellations emerged, some aspects of earlier campaigns remained constant and continued to shape the apologetic field, whereas others took an often dramatic turn.

Biographical inquiry is a good method for charting such developments, as shown in Benjamin Ziemann’s study of the leader of the ‘Confessing Church’, pastor Martin Niemöller, between the 1920s and the 1950s. His political stances appeared to change dramatically in this period, but his Christian apologetics (p.12) also revealed a remarkable degree of continuity. His targets at various points in his career included the ‘godless’ Communists and Social Democrats, the German Christians, Nazi völkisch ideologues, the Christian Democrats and the Catholics. The continuing thread was his Protestant nationalism, learned in childhood from a father who was active in the anti-Catholic Evangelischer Bund and reinforced by his experiences as a U-Boat captain in the First World War and a worker for the Inner Mission in the Ruhr industrial region in the 1920s. It continued through the Nazi period and underlay his opposition to the division of Germany and West German rearmament, as well as the revival of his earlier anti-Catholicism.

Uta Balbier’s comparison between Billy Graham’s London Crusades in 1954 and 1966 also shows a striking example of how apologetic is shaped by a specific context and can mutate quite quickly when this context changes. In 1954 Graham’s allegedly apolitical revivalism was nonetheless ‘anticommunist, pro-free market and white’, and he was able with relatively little controversy to offer Britain joint leadership of his international programme of re-Christianisation. By 1966 it was clear that Britain, as well as the United States, had changed, and that race was no longer an issue that could be ignored, though in the view of his critics, Graham’s message had not changed fast enough. In the course of time even Graham’s anti-communism was increasingly side-lined and he distanced himself from the ‘Religious Right’ in the 1980s. His objective continued to be the conversion of the maximum number of individuals to evangelical Christianity. But the means of doing this continually evolved.

The most striking continuity between the 19th and early 20th centuries and the years after the Second World War is revealed by Udi Greenberg and Jennifer Miller. They show how liberal American anti-communists drew heavily on tropes derived from older traditions of anti-Catholicism, a somewhat ironic development, given that Pius XII was widely considered one of the foremost anti-communist leaders of the world at the time. This sometimes happened directly as the same Protestant or secularist writers accused communists of the ‘mental slavery’ which they had earlier attributed to Catholics. Sometimes it happened less consciously as ways of thinking forged in the ‘culture wars’ of the later 19th and early 20th centuries were drawn upon in new conflicts. These included, for example, the ideal of the American as a free individual, guided only by his or her own conscience and refusing any reference to external authority, and the tendency to explain deviant opinions as the result of psychological flaws rather than any legitimate concerns.

These examples indicate the path dependency of apologetics, which carried past patterns across crucial political breaks. However, the 20th century also reveals transformations of the apologetic field, in which it came to apparent reversals of position. The clearest is provided by the 1960s. Theological changes played an important role, as did changes in how religious actors related to and interpreted their political environment. In Christianity, the decade saw a revolution in ecumenical relationships, made possible by the Second Vatican Council, and at the same time a new degree of openness to other religions and even to secularism and atheism. Dialogue became a key theme of the years following the Council, (p.13) and it was enthusiastically adopted by many Protestant and Orthodox Christians, as well as by Catholics. For some Christian apologists their ‘defence of the faith’ was already beginning to follow new directions. Theologians such as the Anglican John Robinson or the Baptist Harvey Cox attempted to move beyond a simple negation of secularism by adopting insights from secularist writers and integrating them into their interpretation of Christianity. Indeed, the focus of their attack often shifted to more conservative Christians, whom they accused of propagating a legalistic morality, incompatible with ‘Christian freedom’, as well as pre-scientific images of God. In presenting a more ‘authentic’ as well as more contemporary Christianity, they aimed to clear away barriers to the acceptance of the Christian faith. Something similar was being attempted, as Miri Freud-Kandel shows, by the Orthodox Jewish scholar Louis Jacobs. In a series of works in the 1950s and ’60s, he drew on the work of academic biblical scholars to question not the divine origins of the Torah, but the prevailing Orthodox accounts of how God’s teachings had been revealed. The result was the ‘Jacobs Affair’, leading to his ostracism by the British Orthodox leadership. Other theological innovators also made enemies in high places. Robinson’s best-selling Honest to God was heavily criticised by Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, though the results of this controversy were much less drastic, as Ramsey rejected all demands that Robinson be accused of heresy, and Robinson’s own bishop defended him. At about the same time, as Victoria Smolkin shows, leading apologists for atheism in the Soviet Union were attempting to move anti-religious propaganda in new directions—not by conceding that religions contained any truth, but by trying to show how they met essential human needs, and by suggesting ways in which atheists could learn from the religious.

In spite of the efforts of Christian and Jewish liberals, the later 1960s saw an accelerating decline in religious practice and the emergence of more unequivocally secular societies in most parts of western Europe and in North America. And in spite of the rise in the Soviet Union of more subtle forms of atheist apologetic, the same years saw, as Smolkin notes, a rising indifference towards political ideology and the beginnings of a revival of interest in religion among the Soviet intelligentsia, preparing the way for the eventual resurgence of the Orthodox Church.

Anti-Colonialism and Decolonisation

Despite the apparently binary arrangement of the Cold War, and despite the prevalence of Manichean rhetoric of good religion and evil secularism utilised during culture wars, apologetics always involved a complex interplay of interests. As David Friedrich Strauss had noted already in the 1830s, there was no separating inner-church polemics from external apologetics. Thus in Miri Freud-Kandel’s study, the shifting interpretations of secularisation in the 1960s opened up new fronts within Orthodox Judaism. In Umar Ryad’s study, British converts to Islam were principally concerned to demonstrate the superiority of Islam to Christianity; (p.14) however, they also believed and sometimes said that Christianity was losing the battle against secularism and that Muslims could pursue this fight more effectively.

Another form of triangulation took place outside Europe, where the Cold War overlapped with a collapse of the imperial order. The 1960s marked the culmination of the decolonisation of most of Asia and Africa. From the 1940s, large numbers of states were established, newly independent from European rule. In most of them competition between religions and between religions and secularism was a shaping factor in politics and a key issue for governments to resolve. The new states also faced the question of alignment with the United States or with the Soviet Union, or of maintaining a more independent stance, including the possibility of joining the Non-Aligned Movement. Vlad Naumescu shows how the Indian Orthodox leader, Paulos Mar Gregorios, tried to create a religious equivalent of the Non-Aligned Movement in the Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches held in 1965. The conference led to Gregorios’s Christian Education project which implicitly challenged both sides of the Cold War in its attempts to nurture a ‘Christian worldview’ rooted in church tradition, while also being fully engaged with contemporary issues of communalism, poverty, inequality, and the threat of nuclear war.

The complex religious demographics of most of the newly established states led to rapidly fluctuating patterns of alliances and fluctuating apologetic strategies. In Gregorios’s South India, the biggest threat to the Orthodox churches may have seemed in the colonial era to be that coming from the rival Christian denominations brought by missionaries from Europe and North America. By the 1950s the communists had a powerful presence and the various religions worked together to oppose their secularising agenda. In the later 20th century Hindu nationalism posed a bigger threat. Meanwhile, Hindu nationalists faced a double threat from the large and well-organised Muslim minority and from Nehru’s version of the secular state, which would protect the rights of religious minorities and would thwart the attempts by Hindus to define India as a Hindu nation. These latter efforts are one of the apologetic projects in the multi-religious context of South and South-East Asia described by Clemens Six. In his case study of the highly influential National Volunteer Organisation (RSS) he shows how in the period immediately preceding and following Indian Independence this spearhead of Hindu nationalism engaged in propaganda by deed as well as word. Alongside political campaigning they also engaged in armed defence of Hindus against what they termed ‘Muslim aggression’ and in social work on behalf of refugees from Pakistan including establishment of refugee camps.

Alma Rachel Heckman shows that in Morocco during the years from the 1950s to the 1970s a widely popular Communist Party drew support both from the Muslim majority and from the Jewish minority. While maintaining close links with the Soviet Union, the communists felt constrained by the political and social dominance of Islam to disclaim any support for Soviet atheism, and to insist on the close affinity between communism and Islam. The state, for its part, while damning the communists for their ‘materialism’ in the 1950s and ’60s was prepared to be more (p.15) accommodating in the 1970s both because of friendlier relations with the Soviet Union and because of its need for allies in the face of domestic enemies.


The methods used by apologists varied greatly. Some aimed to galvanise the faithful and persuade potential converts by focusing on a hostile enemy force, depicted in entirely negative terms. This was most obviously true of the American anticommunists (and in some cases also anti-Catholics) described by Udi Greenberg and Jennifer Miller, and also of Billy Graham’s 1954 crusade. It was also true of Pius XI’s rationale for the establishment of Catholic Action and for Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign. At the other extreme are the kinds of apologetic which try to build bridges by claiming to find common ground between one’s own faith and that of apparent enemies. A striking example is the attempt by the Moroccan communists to demonstrate large areas of common ground between communism and Islam. While this is very explicit in the Moroccan case, there are some similarities with 1960s Britain, as shown by Peter Itzen. The leaders of the Church of England, rather than confronting the secularising forces head-on, as some church members wished, conceded some ground to those demanding reform of the laws on, for example, abortion and divorce. In doing this they aimed to retain some influence on the framing of the reforming legislation—as well as maintaining the Church’s public voice in public debate on a range of other issues. And indeed, as Itzen shows, the Anglican bishops played a prominent part in criticism of Margaret Thatcher’s social policies, and especially the plight of impoverished ‘inner city’ areas highlighted in their famous report, Faith in the City.

The relationship between religion and secularism was a central theme of politics in the ‘short 20th century’, as well as being of intense concern to many individuals on both sides. In many European countries it remained a crucial influence on voting at least up to the early 1970s. As a handbook of electoral behaviour published in 1974 concluded, ‘the general rule seems to be that religious differentiation intrudes on partisan political alignments in unexpectedly powerful ways whenever it conceivably can’.12

From 1979, a series of world-changing events saw the beginnings of a new era in the relations between religion and secularism and between religions. The Islamic Revolution in Iran coincided with the emergence of the Religious Right in the United States. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, and the years following saw perestroika and the rapprochement between the Soviet state and the Russian Orthodox Church.

(p.16) The manifest political power of religious movements across the globe contributed to a revival of secular–religious conflict on several very different fronts in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. One of these was opened up by the ‘New Atheists’, of whom the most widely read was the British zoologist, Richard Dawkins. The stridency of their attacks on religions of every kind united in opposition to them liberal and conservative believers, as well as some whose views were simply more nuanced. These attacks were prompted in particular by the threat to science generally and to Darwinism in particular posed by Creationists and advocates of intelligent design based mainly in the United States. The ‘New Atheists’ worked as individuals, rather than as members of any political movement: they stood more in the tradition of the science-fiction authors presented by Peter Bowler than in that of the leaders of the anticlerical organisations, such as were present in interwar Germany or Khrushchev-era Soviet Union. More politicised, and also more complex in the patterns of alliances which they provoked, were the ‘culture wars’, which have been hotly contested in the United States since the Reagan presidency, and which had parallels in other countries where conservative Christians were well organised and politically influential. The flashpoints in these ‘wars’ have been the decriminalisation of homosexuality and abortion on demand, as well as the secular curriculum of public schools. These issues have had wide-ranging ramifications for traditional understandings of society and family. While secularists tend to line up on one side of the debate and conservative Christians and Jews on the other, liberal believers have often joined the secularists in opposing their more conservative co-religionists.

Meanwhile, as communism declined, nationalism, often reinforced by religion, grew in political force. Conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims became of major political importance in many parts of the world. Religious oppositions thus took new forms. In the 21st century, the question of Islam overlapped with the culture wars, producing unexpected alliances. Liberal Christians and Jews sometimes sought common ground with Muslims, while conservative believers and secularists sometimes agreed in their antipathy to Islam. This brought leading secularists, such as the British-American journalist Christopher Hitchens, to direct their fire at Islam as being worse than other religions. The new century also brought a technological transformation of the ways religious communities constitute themselves. As a fitting postscript on the 20th century, Freud-Kandel indicates that the internet enabled both new types of apologetic and new means of challenging religious authority.


(1) S. E. Maltby, Manchester and the Movement for National Elementary Education 1800–1870 (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1918), pp. 78–9; G. Holyoake, ‘The Principles of Secularism’, The Reasoner, 8 January 1854, reprinted in E. Royle, The Infidel Tradition from Paine to Bradlaugh (London, Macmillan, 1976). For a discussion, see T. Weir, ‘Germany and the New Global History of Secularism: Questioning the Postcolonial Genealogy’, The Germanic Review, 90 (2015), 6–20.

(2) C. Clark and W. Kaiser (eds), Culture Wars: Secular-Catholic Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003).

(3) C. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World: 1780–1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Oxford, Blackwell, 2004), chapter 9; J. Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, NJ, Princeton UP, 2014).

(4) T. Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA, Stanford UP, 2003); P. van der Veer, The Modern Spirit of Asia: The Spiritual and the Secular in China and India (Princeton, NJ, Princeton UP, 2014).

(5) F. Schleiermacher, Kurze Darstellung des theologischen Studiums zum Behuf einleitender Vorlesungen (1811/1830) (Berlin, De Gruyter, 2012), 76.

(6) F. Schleiermacher, Theologische Enzyklopädie: (1831/32): Nachschrift David Friedrich Strauss. Schleiermacher-Archiv, 4 (Berlin, De Gruyter, 1987).

(7) D. F. Strauss, Die christliche Glaubenslehre in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung und im Kampfe mit der modernen Wissenschaft (Tübingen, Osiander, 1840).

(8) J. Mausbach, Kernfragen christlicher Welt- und Lebensanschauung: Gedanken und Vorträge (Mönchengladbach, Verlag der Zentralstelle des Volksvereins für das kathol. Deutschland, 1905).

(9) M. Rade, ‘Bedenken gegen die Termini “Apologetik” und “christliche Weltanschauung”’, Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche, 17 (1907), 423–35.

(10) S. Hook, ‘Democracy as a Way of Life’, in J. N. Andrews and C. A. Marsden (eds), Tomorrow in the Making (New York, Whittlesey House, 1939), pp. 31–46. S. Hook, ‘Heresy and Conspiracy: A Critique of Apologetics’, Meanjin (September 1955). S. Hook, ‘Hegel and His Apologists’, Encounter (May 1966). J. Rorty and M. Decter, McCarthy and the Communists (Boston, Beacon Press, 1954/1972), p. 32.

(11) T. V. Smith, ‘Democratic Apologetics’, Ethics, 63 (January 1953), 100–6.

(12) P. E. Converse, ‘Some Priority Variables in Comparative Electoral Research’, in R. Rose (ed.), Electoral Behavior: A Comparative Handbook (New York, Free Press, 1974), p. 734.